A shelf contains a selection of photobooks

The Joy of Photobooks – By Nik Stanbridge

Back in the early 1980s, in my 20s and in my formative photographic years, I read a lot of books about the craft and practice of photography. This obviously contributed enormously to my understanding of photography and my ability to use a manual camera and take well exposed photographs.

I bought and read beautiful old books about the zone system, toning, developer formulae, darkroom printing. And I kept going. Books about the decisive moment, composition, film stock, technique this, technique that… Lots of practical books. But no books of photographs (OK, maybe one or two… an Ansel Adams or two).

Still life with cucumber, lightbulb and cigarette (1986)
Still life with cucumber, lightbulb and cigarette (1986). Olympus OM1, Zuiko 50/1.8, Kodak Plus-X.
Some technical books about photography
Some of the technical books about photography that I acquired back in the 1980s

During this time, I also went to a lot of exhibitions. As a student in London, I would head off on weekends to the private/commercial/public galleries hosting the best shows and exhibitions. In fact seeing photographs live and in the flesh was hugely important to me and I know it influenced my work (it’s still an activity I absolutely love and seek out as often as I can). One of the memorable ones was David Hurn’s 1984 show Up To Date that included  “Documentary pictures of romantic places. Romantic pictures of documentary places” at the ffoto gallery). In those days, pre-internet, magazines (Camera and Creative Camera especially) and galleries were pretty much the only way to see new work.

Some exhibition flyers/catalogues
Some exhibition flyers/catalogues

It’s also at about this time that I was introduced to some of the more philosophical and theoretical treatise on photography. Books like Camera Lucida, Ways of Seeing, On Photography… these were all great reads and influenced me and how I thought about photography.

Some books about the philosophy/theory of photography
I also read a lot around the theory and philosophy of photography…
A selection of more books recently acquired
A selection of books acquired relatively recently

Eventually it dawned on me that looking at more photographs, and understanding what photographers were trying to say, was what would most benefit the development of my work and projects. That and studying the photographers whose work I admired and wanted to learn from. And discovering work new to me to broaden my horizons: despite recognising the work of a lot of photographers, I realised that I was coming at it from a very limited, mainstream perspective (popular photography if you like). When I recognised this, that there was a whole world of ‘less mainstream’ photography that I wasn’t aware of, I was off!

Here are some of my favourite books.

Good God Damn by Bryan Schutmaat
Good God Damn by Bryan Schutmaat (2017)
UK 77 - Digging my way to London by Shinro Ohtake (2004)
UK 77 – Digging My Way to London by Shinro Ohtake (2004)
Guts by Masaki Yamamoto (2017)
Guts by Masaki Yamamoto (2017)
Uncommon Places by Stephen Shore (2014)
Uncommon Places by Stephen Shore (2014)

Seeing and studying the work of other photographers became a thing for me. I think it started when I went to the Radical Eye show at Tate Modern and bought the catalogue (I could now afford this sort of thing) and then somehow through that, I arrived at the Parr & Badger volumes on photobooks. I realise that I was quite late to the party re. buying photobooks but having acquired a few (OK, a lot), the benefits of studying actual photographs/photographers and the stories they tell started to make sense and really hit home with me.

All About Saul Leiter (2017)
All About Saul Leiter (2017)

Admittedly I bought a few duds along the way but I think that’s no different to going to an exhibition and realising that you didn’t enjoy it (but sometimes a bit more expensive).

I now have quite a library and they are (mostly) a constant source of joy and inspiration. They are a resource I cherish and refer to regularly. And my work is infinitely better for it in terms of the variety of the projects I’m working on and my ability to express myself and communicate through my work. I also think my style has evolved in terms of how I present my images. It certainly influenced my decision to abandon digital and return to film three years ago. And I’m making better photobooks myself – a side effect of looking at all those photobooks was absorbing how they are designed and how images to sequence and edit images to tell a story.

"Photogram" books from the 1920s and 30s
“Photogram” books from the 1920s and 30s

This might make it sound like I spend all my time reading rather than shooting. Far from it. But I do place a lot of value on learning, reflecting, and thinking about the photography that I do. I love it!

I’m on Instagram here, and my website, such as it is, is here.


A shameless plug from the editor: 35mmc has it’s first photobook on Kickstarter. You can read about and back the project here.

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About The Author

10 thoughts on “The Joy of Photobooks – By Nik Stanbridge”

  1. Great advice and an amazing library. So much inspiration there.
    Good that you’ve hung on to them through the years.

  2. Hi, Nik.
    I have followed exactly the same sort of journey. I love looking at books of photographic images both for the pleasure and instruction I get. There is an upcoming evening at my camera club which is a sort of question time of a small panel. One question will be what would I spend a £1000 on, and my reply will be books!

  3. I meant to say that I love reading books by Geoff Dyer who is an author and I believe does not own a camera, but who writes entertainingly and perceptively about many photographers and their images

  4. Nicely done! It is always interesting to learn of the inspirations and education (so to speak) of different photographers. I suspect most of us didn’t go to a proper photography school or get a formal education in it. So we’ve all come to where we are through these different channels that spoke to us in a meaningful way.

  5. Nik, Like so many other things us more mature folks value the printed page. Similar to film it gives us a tangible object to possess. Social media has theoretically become the new learning center but I would contend that it’s a horse of a different color. I’ve never been drawn to the immediate but more to the long lasting. It seems so much of current attention is placed on a interior design mentality. What’s the in color, the in look, the best Lightroom action, etc. That way of thinking becomes outdated almost as fast as it’s created because that’s how others support their revenue stream.

    When I was a young man in the mid 1970’s to early 80’s I was fortunate to work for photographer Bank Langmore. In the evenings I sat in the studio, where I lived upstairs, and went through his library. I don’t know how many books I looked at but I can safely say it impacted my vision. Sadly, I don’t have an amazing personal library as life has dictated a more austere approach. Even now I’m in the beginning stages of another downsizing and my negative and print archive take precedence over all else.

    My personal situation is different from most in that I have spent almost my whole working life as a retoucher and production person for other photographers. I’ve seen tens of thousands of images as they’ve passed through my studio. This has been my extended education program. Also, I think my shooting style has been impacted and influenced by my retouching background.

    There is something new to be learned every day and I don’t ever want to think I’ve learned it all or seen it all. I would love to sit in your library some evening.

    1. Bill, such wise and informed words from someone who knows what they’re talking about.

      Next time you’re in Oxfordshire, let me know and we can share a bottle of red and some photobooks. Looking forward to it.

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